an alpha view
July 6, 2010
Hello there. This would be my first review of a product that I don’t personally own. Courtesy of Sony Indonesia and L.A. Lights Indie Movie 2010, I was assigned as the photographer for last weekend event at PPHUI Kuningan, Jakarta. For that purpose, I was loaned their (still) flagship camera, the 24 megapixels Sony Alpha A900.
Empty Future. Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8.
For those who don’t know, Sony’s DSLR range is inherited from Minolta-mount based SLR while they incorporated some of their existing technologies such as sensor-based image stabilization. This particular one is the most “classic style” one, by the look of the huge body and large ‘hump’ for the clear pentaprism, giving 100% viewfinder coverage. Myself being a Nikonian (I regularly use a Nikon D90), testing this full-frame monster proved to be a really different experience. I’ve only used Alpha 230 with kit lens before this and I didn’t like it at all.
For two days, I shoot over 700 shots with 2 Alpha 900 and 1 Alpha 700. Each of them is equipped with a vertical grip, although (sadly) they didn’t loan me a CompactFlash card. I also tested 2 different lens, Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 and Zeiss 85mm f/1.4. Alpha 700 was so-so and 95% of the time I used its bigger brother, so I only reviewed Alpha 900 here.
Alpha 900 is heavy. Like, you already guessed it by its jet-black solid steel body, but it’s heavier than it seems. The grip is pretty comfortable although the vertical grip proved to be a necessity if you’re doing more portrait work. The controls is pretty good, but the ‘feel’ of the buttons could be better (it’s too stiff for my liking). The ISO button is kinda out of reach of my reasonably large Asian hand. Paired with the also heavy 16-35mm will give it a more balanced and comfortable hold.
Image quality? 24 megapixels and very high quality lens can’t lie: they’re extraordinary match. Plenty of detail and good tone, although you really have to notice these limitations:
1. Use low ISO. Alpha 900’s sensor have some weaknesses, a pretty distracting noise issue from ISO 640 upwards is one big minus. It’s really that bad (compared to Canon EOS 5D mark II and Nikon D700 which I’ve also played with months ago) and the built-in noise reduction technology don’t really help. Factory default, some of my early shots are shockingly bad and really poor in color. Some tunings improved it considerably.
2. Shoot RAW. Like I’ve said before, the JPEG noise reduction is bad. Get over it and shoot RAW, don’t forget to use good quality cards to store those monster-sized files. Use your favorite noise reduction software to post-process them. I don’t have a lot of time to test it throughly, but slight tweaks in Adobe Lightroom 3 produced some really good shots. It uses a sensor similar to the legendary Nikon D3x, although it gives a less but more than adequate exposure headroom in its RAW shots.
3. Use great optics. What can I say? Zeisses are incredible. The 16-35mm is pretty good with a fantastic build, but I’m really impressed with the 85mm f/1.4. Used wide open, I’ve seen few that can match it. Sharp details, slight vignette and great bokeh are always guaranteed coming out from this metal lens. Thankfully A900’s AF is pretty accurate, it’s a pity it only have 9 AF point spreaded over really small area in the center.
Catching Air. Zeiss 85mm f/1.4.
My take is that it’s better as a studio camera, preferably outdoor. It’s also great for daylight landscape application or anything as long as you don’t need high ISO and speed for your work. For this L.A.Lights Indie Movie workshop event it’s an overkill, though it’s really fun to hear at other photographers’ pathetic shutter release sound while this alpha produced a heavy “ka-chlunk” sound that turned some heads.
I also tested a more modern Alpha 500 with a 30mm f/2.8 macro lens and the hot new kid Sony NEX-5. Alpha 500 is very light and the lens are pretty good while the sexy red NEX-5 is the future for Sony. Press shots don’t justify it, you have to hold it in your hand to fall in love with the thin beauty. The sweep panorama mode is shockingly useful and the video recording feature coupled with its tilting LCD display is really fun to use. I can imagine buying one for casual use at Jakarta’s street or long journey across Java.
Here’s some sample BW shots, edited in Lightroom 3.0. I look forward to the next event and cameras by Sony Indonesia. In the mean time, I’m saving for that vintage Rolleiflex.